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Nuri el-Okbi and the Expert Professor (part two)

The state's expert witness in the Bedouin Land Case turns out to have written in a book the opposite of the opinion presented to the court.

In the latest session of the Bedouin Land Case, conducted before Justice Sarah Dovrat of the Beersheba District Court, there were exposed inconsistencies and inaccuracies in the expert opinion presented to the court, on behalf of the state, by Professor Ruth Kark of the Hebrew University. In her written opinion Prof. Kark had asserted that the Czech orientalist Louis Musil, an important Negev explorer, had stayed at the end of the 19th century in the al-Arakib land subject to the present proceedings "and did not see anything there." Att. Michael Sfard - who represents Bedouin rights activist Nuri al Okbi in his claim to ownership of this land, from which he and his tribe were expelled in 1951 - presented the witness with a section from Musil's book mentioning his having met members of the al Okbi Tribe on that same land. Prof. Kark responded: "Musil only refers to their being camped there. They were nomads. It does not indicate that this was their fixed abode." Sfard said: "Even so, this is relevant information which you should have presented to the court."

Much of the hearing centered on the issue whether the 19th century Negev Bedouins in general, and the al Okbis of that time in particular, had been "nomads" who have no fixed abode - or had they been "semi-nomads" engaged in a regular cyclical migration between summer and winter locations, returning to the same places and engaging in agricultural cultivation. This is a critical issue in determining land ownership rights. In her expert opinion submitted to the court Professor Kark had asserted that in the 19th century there was no agricultural cultivation whatsoever in the Negev, and she repeated this assertion at the start of the cross-examination. Sfard, however, presented the witness with excerpts from her own published books and articles, in which she referred to land cultivation in the Negev, and even mentioned tribes going to war with each other over possession of agricultural land. Subsequently Prof. Kark amended her original submission and admitted that there did exist some agricultural cultivation in the Negev during the 19th Century but it had been no more than "incidental agriculture."

Att. Sfard then presented data from the British Mandate period, also published by Prof. Kark herself, according to which in 1920's and 1930's there were in the Negev some three and a half million dunams under agricultural production [four dumans = one acre], and that 81% of the Negev Bedouins subsisted on agriculture as opposed to only 10% who lived from grazing. "How did such a tremendous revolution in Bedouin society come about in such a traditional and conservative society – during only a few years? From marginal, incidental agriculture which according to you was all that existed in Ottoman times, to a society principally concerned with agriculture in the British Mandate?" Professor Kirk answered "I guess there really happened a revolution there."

Another significant issue was the Ottoman Land Law of 1858, on which the Israeli authorities often rely when denying claims of Bedouin land ownership. "Did the Ottomans rule the Negev in practice during the 19th century, or was their rule just a formality? Were the Bedouins required in practice to register their land? Did there exist at all in the Negev Land Registration Offices?" Professor Kark responded in the positive to all questions. Sfard then presented in the court a section of the book "History of the pioneering Jewish settlement in the Negev, 1880-1948" which Prof. Kark wrote in 1974, stating: "In the Turkish period there was no official record kept of the Negev lands. Determination of land ownership relied on traditions recorded in Deftars (Books of Record), notebooks which were kept by the Mukhtars and the Sheikhs. Any juridical action in the land was recorded in the Deftars which the Bedouins treated with respect and trust." This was quoted by Kark from Joseph Weitz, who had been Director of the Jewish National Fund's Land Acquisition Department during the Mandate period and who was a leading figure in the Zionist settlement enterprise.

"Do you still uphold what you wrote in this book?" asked Sfard, to which Professor Kark replied: "No, it's a book published decades ago. Later, some fifteen years ago, I found Ottoman documents showing that the situation was otherwise." Sfard then asked: "If you located the conflicting evidence fifteen years ago, how come that your book was republished in 2002, with this reference to Negev Bedouin land ownership still appearing in it unchanged?" The witness replied "This was a photographic edition of the old text, which was not updated."

His cross-examination of Professor Kart will resume at the next session of the Bedouin Land Case, scheduled for June 23, 2010 at 9:00 am before Judge Sarah Dovrat at the Beersheba District Court.